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Published 17 February 2014 10:23, Updated 18 February 2014 12:22
From left to right: Denis Horgan, chairman of Leeuwin Estate, his wife Tricia Horgan, their daughter and CEO Simone Furlong and son Justin Horgan, general manager for Leeuwin Estate are standing in the vineyards at Margaret River. Photo: Martine Perret
When Margaret River vineyard owner Denis Horgan heard that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had pulled out of playing at his vineyard’s fledgling annual concert, he called legendary blind American soul singer Ray Charles.
It was in the lead-up to the 1988 Leeuwin Estate concert, which has become the Woodstock for the rich.
Leeuwin owners Denis and his wife Tricia had assumed that by underwriting a national tour they would be assured of getting the Chicago Symphony, known as one of America’s “Big Five” orchestras, to play at their vineyard – as they were, three years earlier, with the London Philharmonic.
But because the government purse had been opened for bicentenary celebrations, the Perth Festival, which previously had to rely on the Horgans to underwrite a major tour, could showcase the famed orchestra in the city.
“That annoyed the hell out of me, so I got Ray Charles,” says Horgan, who funded the singer’s performance, air fares and helicopter ride from Perth to the vineyard, and back again.
“I put him on the same night the orchestra was playing in Perth. They were still advertising tickets on the day of the performance. I was full.”
On Saturday night, the Leeuwin concert will celebrate its 30th anniversary, with sultry Canadian jazz singer and pianist Diana Krall as the headline act.
Dating back to 1985, the Leeuwin concert helped pioneer the concept of music in the vineyards, after the Leeuwin owners hatched their plan to associate their upmarket wine with classy music. The rich version of Woodstock is designed to attract the same clientele who drink its upmarket wines.
The concert has led to a series of spinoff parties, with companies such as Macquarie Bank and Ernst & Young sometimes hosting their own private functions to coincide with the traditional weekend away down south.
The Leeuwin concert has spawned a whole weekend of celebrations and networking opportunities in the grape-growing region that is bigger than the concert itself.
Business people including NAB chairman Michael Chaney, ANZ’s institutional banking boss Andrew Géczy and Fortescue Metals chief executive Nev Power are due to be in the Margaret River area.
Opposition Leader Bill Shorten and Liberal senator Mathias Cormann are expected to attend functions nearby.
It is Western Australia’s answer to the Melbourne Cup, even if the concert itself has arguably lost some of its shine.
The headline act used to be a closely guarded secret, and there was much excitement in Perth when the name was finally released.
But the sheer number of other vineyard concerts and a highly developed outdoor music scene means the Leeuwin concert is not the unique event it once was. The Sandalwood winery, for example, has booked crooner Lionel Richie and Australian rocker John Farnham for its March concert, to be held in WA’s Swan Valley.
“The outdoor activity has stepped up considerably,” says Joe Cipriani, publisher of Perth-based music title X-Press magazine. He says Leeuwin organisers are now more likely to bring in a touring performer – as opposed to an exclusive act – who doesn’t demand top dollar.
“Organisers tend to lower their risk even if their ticket prices stay the same.”
It’s been several years since Leeuwin managed to secure Sting, which got people in Perth talking.
But Leeuwin still boasts a nostalgia that newer concerts can’t compete with. This year, jazz musician James Morrison is playing as he did at the vineyard’s first concert in 1985.
“Thirty years, has it been that long?” the renowned trumpet player says. “They asked me to . . . basically do a James Morrison. There will be lots of Motown. There will be songs like Heard It Through the Grapevine and Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, but the songs won’t be old. What we do with those songs is another thing altogether.”